As voters in the United States prepare for the presidential election in November, the South China Morning Post is exploring the potential ramifications for China. The fifth part of the series looks at shifts in US policy towards Taiwan. A consequence of the Trump administration’s China policy has been a rising confidence in Taiwan that its American allies will shield it from any attack from the mainland, which regards the self-ruled island as a renegade province, to be recovered by force if necessary. Decades of a carefully cultivated strategic ambiguity by the US over its stance on Taiwan appeared to be in doubt when newly-minted President Donald Trump broke with protocol to take an early congratulatory call from the island’s independence-leaning leader Tsai Ing-wen four years ago. Since then, a raft of pro-Taiwan legislation and billions of dollars in arms sales have bolstered the view on the island that the US will come to its defence in any military action, along with a surge in anti-mainland sentiment. National Taiwan University student Lee Mu-wen, 19, has no doubt that the US has Taiwan’s back, in contrast to the days of the Obama administration, when pro-mainland Ma Ying-jeou was the island’s president. “The US certainly will come to our rescue as our relations with Washington are so much better than that of Ma Ying-jeou’s time as president, as evident by what Trump has done for us in recent years,” he said. Lee’s view has become more mainstream in Taiwan, where the number of locals who identify as Taiwanese has risen to an all-time high of 67 per cent, according to a June survey by the National Chengchi University, compared to 17.6 per cent in 1992, when the annual surveys began. The same survey found the number of locals who identified as both Taiwanese and Chinese had dropped sharply – to only 27.5 per cent, from 34.7 per cent last year and 46.4 per cent in 1992. Taiwan’s opposition KMT decides to uphold ‘one China’ consensus But a Joe Biden victory in the US elections in November could herald the return of a more cautious US approach. Observers say his long-standing position – that the US should not oblige itself to “cede to Taiwan, much less to China, the ability automatically to draw us into a war across the Taiwan Strait” – has not changed. In his days as a senator, before his role as vice-president in the Obama administration, Biden stressed the importance of strategic ambiguity, given that Washington had no obligation to defend the island since its abrogation of the 1954 Mutual Defence Treaty. The Trump administration and the US Congress have stepped up cooperation with Taiwan over the past four years, including seven major arms deals with the island, worth a total of US$13.27 billion. Trump has also signed into law the Taiwan Travel Act , which allows high-level US officials to visit Taiwan, and the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act , which requires the State Department to report to Congress on steps taken to strengthen Taiwan’s diplomatic relations with other partners in the Indo-Pacific region. The Trump administration has stepped up cooperation with the island in several fields and even entered into a security partnership with Taipei, despite warnings and protests by Beijing. On June 30, US House Representative Mike Gallagher co-sponsored legislation that, if passed, would formally end Washington’s strategic ambiguity over Taiwan’s status. “It‘s long past time to end strategic ambiguity and draw a clear red line through the Taiwan Strait,” he said. The proposed Taiwan Defence Act has been designed to bind the US into countering PLA military aggression, specifically to prevent a “fait accompli” against the island by Beijing. In another sign of a possible shift from its policy of strategic ambiguity to “strategic clarity” on Taiwan, the US has called for a restructuring of the global supply chain to decouple economic links with the mainland. How Beijing’s ‘red lines’ over Taiwan could lead to war with US At a forum in Taipei on Friday, Brent Christensen, director of the American Institute in Taiwan – which serves as the de facto US embassy to the island in the absence of official ties – said the coronavirus pandemic had exposed the risks of relying on a single country or supplier for critical materials, such as medical supplies and pharmaceuticals, and for inputs to strategically important industries. “As we plan for a post-pandemic world and evaluate what changes to the global supply chain are necessary, one thing is certain: Taiwan has demonstrated time and again that it is a reliable partner and a critical player for moving toward a more sustainable global economy,” he said. Wang Kung-yi, who heads the Taiwan International Strategic Study Society, an independent think tank, said statements such as these would only fan pro-independence sentiment on the island. “What the Trump administration has said and done has been conveniently used by pro-independence politicians to back their points that the US would not give up on Taiwan and would watch its back should cross-strait conflict erupt,” he said. US moves bolstering Taiwan are meant to ‘restore balance’, US diplomat says The pro-US policy adopted by Tsai and the growing trend among the island’s citizens to identify as Taiwanese, rather than Chinese, had seen anti-China sentiment grow stronger every day on the island, compared with Ma’s presidency, Wang said. “This could drive Taiwan to a point of no return in cross-strait relations, and is risky if hawkish pro-independence politicians push for a show of hands with China.” Wang said Tsai must calculate carefully whether to put all her eggs in the Trump basket, as the picture could be very different if Biden wins the presidency and prefers not to oblige the US to come to Taiwan’s defence in the event of an attack from the mainland. At a seminar in Taipei last month, former president Ma warned of the possibility of a PLA attack and urged the island’s leader to prevent war. “A president should refrain from telling the public how many days Taiwan can last in a war, but should tell them that he or she can prevent war from happening,” Ma said, referring to remarks by Tsai that Beijing would pay a great price if it attacked the island. Tsai has asserted that Taiwan is capable of withstanding a first wave of PLA attacks and that other countries will come to the island’s rescue. Ma predicted that any PLA attack would be over before US help could arrive, but he also said he doubted whether American help would be provided, drawing a rebuke from politicians in the Tsai camp for fanning defeatism. Alexander Huang Chieh-cheng, a professor of international relations and strategic studies at Tamkang University in Taipei, said the US may well come to the island’s rescue, but it “may not be timely, sufficient, with direct engagement with the PLA”. “The US security commitment to Taiwan has been mostly in the form of diplomatic language and arms sales and is not guaranteed by bilateral treaty, nor American domestic laws,” he said. “Should there be a contingency, statements of condemnation will come within hours, but the involvement of American forces in the conflict has always been ‘conditional’.” Huang said Taiwan decision-makers needed to understand that US security help to Taiwan had “an intrinsic limitation”. “Also, significant political agendas in the next two years – i.e. the Chinese Communist Party’s centennial in 2021 and the 20th Party Congress in 2022 – may not prevent Beijing from using non-peaceful means against Taiwan,” he said. China tells US to stop building relationship with Taiwan Huang noted that Tsai’s tightly controlled policies, statements and measures – while confrontational in essence – were carefully calculated. She was not expected to opt for military conflict with Beijing, he said. “The true long-term risk is that pro-independence politicians ride the wave and continue to drive desinicisation, especially among young people. This will poison any future possibility of cross-strait detente.” He warned that the island’s independence would only be realised if Beijing abandoned Taiwan in its pursuit of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” or if it was defeated in an independence war. “Independence cannot be achieved by inspirations in Taiwan nor distrust of the mainland,” he said. Asked if the US would support Taiwan’s independence, Huang said Washington’s policies and actions were based purely on American capacity and interests at any particular time. “The US will always support Taiwan’s freedom and democracy and American strategic interests in the region. However, as people have stated many times, Washington will not give a blank cheque and allow Taiwan to write on it with American blood,” Huang said. You can read the first story in the series here , the second here , the third here and the fourth here .